“What we saw was that teachers were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content they were required to teach by the state standards,” said Hatcher. Committees went to work to develop standards that focused on the big picture rather than on rote memorization of dates and names. “That does not preclude teachers from teaching individuals as case studies and examples of those larger events,” said Hatcher.
The concern, however, is that if it’s not on the test, it won’t be taught. State end-0f-year exams, including the Georgia Milestones, don’t touch on content that’s not in the standards.
“I understand that the state needs to list specific names in order to test basic knowledge and to measure students’ ability to understand the impact of specific people and events,” said retired middle school social studies teacher Penny Ratfliff, a former Georgia Economics Teachers of the Year. “However, any list cannot possibly include all important people. Hopefully, social studies teachers are knowledgeable and confident enough to present people and events that are crucial to a broader understanding of the big picture of Georgia’s history.”
While the state sets standards for what every child should know and be able to do by the end of each grade, it gives districts and teachers leeway on creating curriculum to teach those standards. "This opens the door to using people in history previously uncredited for their efforts in different events. Teachers can find source materials best suited for their classrooms," said Hatcher. (DOE provides in-depth resources in multiple formats for teachers.)
Despite vows by all states to base their standards on educational merit, politics can intrude. Insisting new social studies standards must be "politically neutral," a Michigan state senator proposed eliminating or minimizing mention of gay rights, Roe v. Wade and the term "core democratic values." In addition, Michigan Republican state Sen. Patrick Colbeck objected to the class time devoted to citizen involvement and community activism, writing in his review, "My concern is that our students are being trained to change our political system before they are instructed in how our political system is intended to work." The public uproar over his revisions has led a delay in a vote on the standards.
Earlier this month, a controversy erupted in Arizona when the state school superintendent named a creationist who believes the earth is only 6,000 years old and dinosaurs traveled on Noah’s Ark to an eight-member working group revising the state’s standards on evolution.
While opponents of evolution once pushed "balance," advocating that schools also teach creationism or intelligent design, the latest tactic is to belittle evolution as contested theory, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in California.
“Now, when we see a bill,” Branch said, “it’s under the rubric that teachers should be allowed to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial. Bills have been introduced about 75 times since 2004, but only three were enacted, in Mississippi, Tennessee and Louisiana.”
The statutes are cast as defenses of academic freedom with Mississippi’s law stating: “No local school board, school superintendent or school principal shall prohibit a public school classroom teacher from discussing and answering questions from individual students on the origin of life.”
Georgia’s faced its own evolution revolutions. In 2002, Cobb County put stickers in science textbooks warning that evolution was a “theory, not a fact.” Cobb finally agreed to remove the stickers in 2006 after a protracted legal battle that included a ruling that the stickers endorsed a particular religious belief.
In 2004, then state Superintendent Kathy Cox called evolution a “controversial buzzword” and struck the term from proposed standards, substituting “biological changes over time,” a phrase scientists condemned as meaningless. With Republican leadership in the Gold Dome aghast at the international derision and former President Jimmy Carter saying the school chief undermined the education of Georgia’s students, Cox retreated and evolution stayed.